At Christmas time, the last thing we want is to see Santa staying up late with no presents to deliver.
But if some holiday gifts arrive late, it won’t be the fault of Santa’s elves or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
An unusually low water level in the Panama Canal could be the Grinch ships stopping to carry holiday cargo.
The water is needed to propel ships up and down as they pass through the canal’s various locks, forcing officials to limit the number of ships passing through. Ships must either wait at the canal entry point or find another route.
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The Panama Canal is a waterway that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but does not use seawater. The locks at both ends are connected to Lake Gatun, a man-made reservoir. Fresh water flows into Gatun from the Chagres River and is usually plentiful. But the Central American nation known for its rainforests is suffering from drought, which in turn is wreaking havoc on the shipping industry.
Built by the United States, the canal began operating a century ago. We may take it for granted these days, but the opening of the path between the seas was an incredible achievement. It remains a true technological marvel, so much so that it is honored as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Before it was built, sea crossings from one side of the Americas to the other were a difficult affair. The ships had to sail as far south as and around Cape Horn, a rocky tip of Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago notorious for extremely treacherous waters and capricious weather. The cape was first rounded in 1616 by Dutch navigator Willem Schouten, who named it after the Dutch town of Hoorn.
As you might expect, this passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans met and collided with each other was feared by all and sailors considered it a forsaken place. Over the centuries, countless ships have been wrecked and thousands of sailors are said to have lost their lives during the crossings.
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Even the English naturalist Charles Darwin, founder of the theory of evolution, escaped this fate at Cape Horn around Christmas 1832, sailing on the HMS Beagle.
Darwin described his ordeal: “Cape Horn, however, claimed his tribute… its dim outline surrounded by a storm of winds and water. Great black clouds were rolling in the heavens, and rains, with hail, swept over us with such extreme violence, that the captain determined to run into Wigwam Cove. This is a comfortable little harbour, not far from Cape Horn; and here, on Christmas Eve, we anchored in smooth water.”
Many ships came out of the Cape Horn passage damaged and had to retreat to Port Stanley in the nearby Falkland Islands for repairs.
With the dawn of the age of steamships, which could traverse rough waters with greater ease than traditional tall ships, the British suspended their ship repair operations.
These days, cruise ships make a pit stop at Port Stanley for a very different reason. The Falkland Islands, an overseas territory of the British Crown, are home to a variety of penguins. The favorite among tourists is of course the king penguin. But the smaller penguins are just as adorable to watch.
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Cape Horn was a menace and a headache for shipping companies. And from the middle of the 19th century, the British and the French, as well as the Americans, began toying with the idea of finding a way to cut off the thin strip of Central America and make a faster, safer and cheaper crossing of the Atlantic in the Pacific.
The French Panama Canal Company gave it the first step and began construction of a sea-level waterway similar to the Suez Canal in Egypt. But they encountered an unexpected adversary… the mosquito, which spreads malaria and yellow fever. In 1898, due to high mortality rates, mechanical problems and a lack of investors, the company folded and went bankrupt. Many French citizens saw their entire investment disappear and lost their savings.
However, this was not even enough to scare US President Theodore Roosevelt.
“I took the canal belt,” he said, “and let Congress debate.”
With Roosevelt’s blessing, Panama was separated from Colombia and in 1904 construction of the canal in the US controlled zone began. This time, however, the plan was to create a lock-type waterway and an artificial freshwater lake fed by a local river and the ubiquitous rain. But before all this became possible, war was declared on mosquitoes to prevent the spread of yellow fever and malaria. On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened to traffic and forever changed the pattern of maritime shipping.
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But now, the recent lack of rain, so vital to the canal’s operations, has created a bottleneck of boats waiting to pass through the canal. Some companies are paying huge sums to move to the top of the queue, others are changing routes… putting old rival Cape Horn back on the shipping map.
The problem is… being this far south, Cape Horn is quite a distance from the North Pole. Santa may well be in a bit of a pickle this holiday season.